by Zun Lee
Father absence was a personal double-whammy for me: I grew up with a Korean father who was married to my mother, lived at home with us, provided materially but was emotionally distant, and extremely physically abusive. From a census perspective, he’d be considered “present”, yet in ways that mattered to me, he was a terrible parent. A few years ago, I discovered by accident that my biological father was actually a black man who disappeared shortly after he learned of my mother’s pregnancy. The day I found out, I felt I had officially become part of the “absent black dad” narrative.
In a twist of fate, I was effectively raised by black families anyway: As a latchkey child growing up in Germany, most of my meaningful parenting experiences came in the form of African American GI families that took me in when I was three years old. Key things I value to this day and that I didn’t get at home, I received from them: Love, guidance, affection, a sense of self-worth, purpose and identity. Because of my proximity to the black community, I was aware of the impact of black father absence early-on, before I learned about my real father: Most of my friends didn’t know their father, either, or had fathers who didn’t live at home and maintained a tenuous relationship at best. There was an unspoken sense of shared meaning and pain when it came to this topic.
For a long time, I didn’t deal with my discovery any further, and the lack of positive media images of black fatherhood played a role in that reluctance: As long as I was able to project my misgivings onto a negative stereotype, I could justify remaining in this space of anger and hurt. But a huge part of me was also curious to know more about my black father, wanting to understand, get to a place of forgiveness. Without any information about his identity or whereabouts, the only way I knew how to come to terms with my feelings was through photography.
Eventually, in September 2011, I began a project I dubbed Father Figure to create the very family snapshots that were absent from my world, and that of many others. I sought to create a rich visual narrative that challenges prevailing assumptions about black father absence, examines what it really means to be “present”, who these men are, and how they demonstrate parenting.
Over the past two years, I met and spoke with hundreds of black fathers from all walks of life. Only a handful eventually gave me photographic access to their emotional inner sanctum and I was privileged to witness an abundance of parenting experiences that I didn’t anticipate at the beginning. I embedded myself in these men’s daily routine as best I could, spending many days and nights in their homes, sometimes even living with them for a while to build a trusted bond. It often required abandoning the photographic observer role to be a friend, confidant, in some cases an extended family member. Often times, I put the camera away and just listened, as these men freely shared their feelings. In other words, I set out to get to know the fathers as they see themselves. I wanted them to share their story in their own way, not based on what they thought I wanted to see.
The photographs emerged gradually, as a by-product of that trusted interaction. I ended up not so much with portraits, but depictions of quiet, non-iconic moments that will likely not be part of mainstream news cycles but hold immense meaning for the families I worked with. Many of pictures had an intended snapshot quality, to remind me of the family album aspect of this project.
Perhaps the most striking insight for me was that every father I worked with didn’t necessarily see themselves as constrained by prevailing stereotypes. Though clearly aware of societal perceptions of black fathers and black men, each father had developed his own voice, articulating his swagger, life rhythm, and ways of relating with their kids and partners in very individual ways. And perhaps more importantly, as I observed these families, another theme manifested loud and clear: Contrary to the prevalent media caricature of black men as aggressive, violent, and reckless, the fathers I met were loving, affectionate, and responsible. They were by no means perfect, but showed tremendous resilience and strength, committed to being present one fatherly act at a time.
Black fathers negotiate a delicate balance between agency and representation, and their ways of parenting are much more diverse than is shown in the media. While carving out a distinct identity as black men, many fathers exhibit a very individual sense of responsibility and purpose, resulting in a richness of lived experiences that many politicians, media anchors, and academicians cannot – and don’t want to – see. There are thus many qualitative dimensions to being a responsible black father that are currently not being conveyed by census statistics or social services metrics but that are nonetheless crucial for successful parenting.
Cultural criticism and academic discourse are equally far removed from actual lived experiences. It seems much easier to talk “about” black fathers, and not “with” them. There’s a cultivated jargon that allows academicians to converse with each other but that fails to cross into the very spaces where the necessary work has to happen: It’s hard to imagine going into people’s homes and automatically expect to have fruitful conversations about the intersectionality of father absence, dismantling patriarchy, or the effects of hypermasculinity on the black male psyche. A more accessible vernacular could extend these conversations into many different real-life contexts without “dumbing things down”. Our focus also has to shift away from viewing issues of black fatherhood solely through the lens of dysfunction and deficiency. Much is happening outside of the “villain” and “victim” paradigms, and those stories are yearning to be foregrounded in words and pictures. In that regard, we also have an opportunity to empower the very individuals that remain invisible and unheard – the fathers themselves. Their perspectives deserve to be shown and told as they see them.
Could visual storytelling serve as an effective tool to document these subjectivities of lived experience? Can “art imitate life”, i.e. can we translate these experiences into a counter-narrative that results in a change in perceptions and perhaps even in the overall visual aesthetic? And in so doing, can visual storytelling effectively bring about political change? Jacques Rancière’s well-known framework on the “distribution of the sensible” certainly offers this possibility[i].
Specifically regarding the notion of representation in photographic images, Rancière said,
representation is not the act of producing a visible form, but the act of offering an equivalent – something that speech does just as much as photography. The image is not the duplicate of a thing. It is a complex set of relations between the visible and the invisible, the visible and speech, the said and the unsaid. It is not a mere reproduction of what is out there in front of the photographer or the filmmaker. It is always an alteration that occurs in a chain of images which alter it in turn.[ii]
The question of what mainstream representations and aesthetics are permitted in the absent/present black father debate has parallels to Rancière’s concept of the social order – a system of implied conventions and rules that determine roles and forms of participation in a community by establishing possible modes of perception. According to Rancière, this “distribution of the sensible” determines who in society has a “voice”, can be seen, and heard, and who doesn’t.
Rancière makes no distinction between the role of aesthetic and political acts: They both have the potential to disrupt the social order, to reframe and to expand our perception of reality. Politics, Rancière posits, can “redistribute the sensible” for greater participation by “the part that has no part”[iii]. In other words, politics is that “rare event” whereby people who have no formal visibility in the social order can partake in the political “redistribution of the sensible”. Because art, by its very nature, is political, visual art has tangible power to create redistribution by introducing new possibilities of perception.[iv]
artistic images don’t bring weapons in the struggle, they help frame new configurations of the visible and the thinkable, which also means a new landscape of the possible.[v]
Politics, in the Rancièrian sense, intervenes through disagreement, or dissensus: It is a “dispute on what is given, on the name that can be given of it and the sense that can be made of it.” [vi] Dissensus does not merely mimic or negate a particular reality, but it creates “other ‘realities’ or other forms of ‘commonsense,’ which means other settings of time and space, other communities of words and things, of perceptions and meanings.”[vii]
Dissensus is particularly relevant for the visual storytelling of Father Figure. Depicting disruptive yet real alternate fathering scenarios has the potential to challenge prevailing representations of black fathers through a kind of “perceptual dissonance” between the generally positive perceptions associated with “good fathers”, juxtaposed against the viewer’s potentially negative perceptions of black males.
The concept of dissensus has a longstanding historical context when it comes to the importance of photography for African Americans. In Art on My Mind, bell hooks describes the significance of image-making, particularly home-made snapshots, in creating an empowering counter-narrative to the ubiquitous distortive representation of black life in pre-integration America.[viii] hooks describes the walls of images in Southern black homes as loci of redistribution of the senses, “private, black-owned and -operated gallery space where images could be displayed, shown to friends and strangers.”[ix] The camera therefore very much becomes a dissensual tool in the Rancièrian sense, “a political instrument, a way to resist misrepresentation as well as a means by which alternate images could be produced.”[x] This notion of photography’s ability to create new possibilities is a key theme for hooks, as well.
In the same essay within Art on My Mind, hooks provides an explanation for why this counterculture of dissensus did not persist into present times: “In part, racial desegregation – equal access – offered a vision of racial progress that, however limited, led many black people to be less vigilant about the question of representation. Concurrently, contemporary commodification of blackness creates a market context wherein conventional, even stereotypical, modes of representing blackness may receive the greatest reward. This leads to a cultural context in which images that would subvert the status quo are harder to produce. There is no ‘perceived market’ for them.”[xi] Arguably, this describes the kind of Rancièrian “police order” dynamic that continues with respect to the visual representation of black males today.
It remains to be seen if the “democratization” of image making and distribution via social media can create renewed possibilities for dissensus, or whether online perceptual patterns are also beginning to distribute the sensible along familiar lines of the social order. The “Black Fathers” account on Instagram is an exciting example of a crowd-sourced space that could recreate some of the political spirit of the walls of images that hooks referred to: The site is a large collection of black father-child snapshots, interspersed with defiant pro-black commentary. Every day, individuals contribute their images by either tagging them with #blackfathers or emailing them to the account owner. The representations certainly create a “better” reality, disrupting the notion that black fathers are “absent”.
It is hard to move the needle in discussions of “fatherhood” and “family” because these terms already inhabit a defined mental, emotional and cultural space for many, and because they evoke specific images and relationship concepts. At the same time, having spoken with so many fathers and after having reviewed a plethora of research publications on black fatherhood, it’s safe to say that we still know very little about black fathers: We don’t have a comprehensive picture of what is actually going on in black domestic spaces and research has only begun to shed light on the many ways black men love and parent their children. Collectively, anecdotal visual narratives therefore generate significant meaning, as they represent an alternate body of lived experience for many fathers. By keeping these alternatives invisible, we also render them invalid. And this distorts the big picture as much as the prevailing stereotypes already do.
My hope is that through visual storytelling of a broader range of black fatherhood, we can reclaim some of that lost ground of owning our own representation that photography traditionally offered us. It can certainly encourage pertinent conversations and research to move us to a more informed understanding of black fathers’ real lives. In my case, Father Figure resulted in the creation of my own domestic “wall of images” that allowed a new way of “re-membering”, as hooks wrote, and set me on a path of forgiveness toward both of my fathers.
Read Part 1 of Fathering While Black
[i] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), p.9.
[ii] Jacques Ranciere, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. by Gregory Elliot (London: Verso, 2009), pp. 93-94.
[iii] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), p.12.
[iv] It should be noted that “politics” as proposed by Rancière, is different from our common understanding of politics as the process of achieving and exercising power, governance, or control.
[v] Jacques, Rancière. “What makes images unacceptable?”, English Lecture Notes. Zürcher Hochschule der Künste (2007).
[viii] bell hooks, “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life” in Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New York: The New Press, 1995), p.54-64.
[ix] Ibid, p.59.
[x] Ibid, p.60.
[xi] Ibid, p.58.
Zun Lee is a physician and visual storyteller in Toronto, Canada and member of Aletheia Photos. He was born and raised in Germany and has also lived in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Chicago. Zun focuses his photographic work primarily on social and human rights issues in communities that are often overlooked. His aesthetic aims to uncover unseen aspects of identity and connection.
In his current long-form documentary project, Father Figure, Zun challenges prevailing visual stereotypes of father absence in African-descended communities. His work has been published in Burn Magazine, New York Times’ Lens Blog, Revista Photo Magazine and other publications.
As well as responding to current concerns and events, it’s a space for writing that endures, for cutting-edge ideas and approaches that fortify and inspire. The articles you will find in this space will show clarity without jargon, careful thinking that takes risks, runs off with ideas but doesn’t compromise on rigour.
- Fathering While Black Part 1 (mediadiversified.org)
- What’s the problem with Black Masculinities? (mediadiversified.org)
- Art Gallery in Chicago Is Promoting the Importance of Black Fatherhood Through Exhibit (blackchristiannews.com)